The world’s richest man Jeff Bezos was among chieftains of four of the world’s most powerful companies participating in an unprecedented US Congressional hearing yesterday. They answered charges of unfair business practices and illegally monopolizing the market.

The Congress ‘Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law’ held the bipartisan hearing involving Amazon founder Bezos, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Apple CEO Tim Cook.

This is the first time that heads of such powerful technology companies appeared together to face questions from elected leaders anywhere in the world. A 15-member panel of Republicans and Democrats interrogated them for five hours.

While the Democrat politicians targeted the Big Four on trade (mal) practices stifling competition, Republican Congressmen lashed out against political bias from social media giants. The virtual Congressional hearing through Webex video conferencing dealt with “Online Platforms and Market Power: Examining the Dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google” – the culmination of a year-long House panel investigation.

The concern of unfair practices among the four “emperors of the online world’ deepens in a world increasingly dependent on the Internet for daily work and life. Calling the four tech-giants as gatekeepers to the digital economy, “these platforms enjoy the power to pick winners and losers, shake down small businesses and enrich themselves while choking off competitors,” said David Cicilline, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee.

“Our founders would not bow before a king. Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.” He pointed out how the four giants dominate the Internet world: Amazon in online shopping, Facebook in social media, Google in search and online advertising and Apple in smartphones and apps. And thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, he said, all four “are likely to emerge stronger and more powerful than ever before.”

Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon already account for nearly $5 trillion in combined worth. They serve billions worldwide through email, Internet-dependent work, mobile phone use online shopping, social media, entertainment and more.

Rhode Island congressman and antitrust subcommittee chairman Cicilline spent his entire first five minute block of questions to grill Google’s Pichai. Google has already faced antitrust action from other countries. The European Commission last year fined Google about $1.7 billion (1.49 billion euros) for breaching EU antitrust rules.

Google under Pichai has also faced accusations of political bias, as evident in Google News search algorithms distinctly favouring one political party. The US Department of Justice also looks set to follow the EU example and sue Google over its advertising business. State attorneys general have also been investigating Google.

The 36-year old multi-billionaire Zuckerberg and his Facebook too are no stranger to controversies. Accusations include copyright and intellectual property infringement, hate speech, incitement of rape and terrorism and electoral manipulation through content posted on Facebook.

The Congressional hearing followed the Judiciary subcommittee studying more than a million internal documents as testimony gathered from the four companies. The Congressional panel seeks to answer if new legislation is needed to replace old antitrust laws.

Not just the US, but other countries such as India will need legislation more in tune with current realities of e-commerce, social media and the Internet-dependent daily life of billions.

With its growing dominance in online commerce in US and India, Amazon and its founder Jeff Bezos have come under sharper scrutiny. Bezos since 2013 also owns the Washington Post newspaper. This is his first appearance in a Congressional hearing. Bezos had posted his autobiographical brief on social media prefacing his written Congressional testimony. He declared his origins as a “garage inventor” who cooked up the idea of an online bookstore Amazon in 1994. The “garage inventor” has since turned Amazon into a $1 trillion company and bagged a personal fortune worth estimated at $180 billion~ more than the GDP of many countries.

Democrat Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal asked Bezos on the subcommittee’s central concern about Amazon: does the company use the data it collects from other sellers on the platform for its benefit? “I can’t answer that question yes or no,” Bezos replied. “We have a policy against using seller-specific data to aid our private business, but I can’t guarantee you that that policy has never been violated.”

The four chieftains shared accusations of giving such evasive or even false answers. But whether they can continue evading legislative correction remains to be seen in the near and interesting future.